What can brands learn from Populism?

Populism: a political strategy based on a calculated appeal to the interests or prejudices of ordinary people (one of the definitions of ‘populism’ from Dictionary.com).

A little under two weeks into the new US Presidency and the world already appears to have turned upside down.

If you are in any way ever-so-slightly left of the new Alt-Right regime then it is likely that waves of fear, anger and regret have been passing over you daily.

Now let us sit down and work this stuff through. Trump’s rise and eventual win were both on the back of capturing hearts and minds of ordinary Americans via Populist policy and rhetoric. Some commentators describe Trump’s victory as a result of his ability to use Populism as a brand.

Whatever your views, it is clear from Brexit and the rise of UKIP in the UK, the Trump presidency etcetera, that huge segments of Western society feel they are overlooked by those in charge; those they believe are the political ‘elite’.

Indeed, it is not just politicians that have left people out in the cold. Look at the way we market and communicate within Western economies. We have become completely obsessed with consumers we might label as Millennials and more lately as Gen-Z. Individuals who represent a minority of their populations. If not these young, trendy careerists then marketeers target affluent segments to sell their products, whether these people are a fair representation of consumers or not.

Of course, I am talking generally and making accusations which are not wholly applicable in every case. But I think you get the point?

Just take a look at some recent advertising. To make these a more relevant choice, let us look at Superbowl 2017 ads, ie those which will be viewed by huge swathes of American people and, therefore, millions and millions of Trump supporters.

Just before we do – a BIG caveat.

I am about to be overly critical, I do not wish to cause offence to any, I firmly acknowledge that these are beautifully crafted films which took a huge amount of effort, and I absolutely appreciate the conventional wisdom of advertising about showing beautiful people and creating aspirational scenes. Also, I am not a marketer so not really in a place to judge.

Here is one from Adidas called “Unleash Your Creativity”. Click the image to watch

How – as an ordinary American – could I relate to this? What the hell does it mean and why would it make me want to switch from buying Nike?

Ok, now try Febreze. A product bought by everyone, a product for everyone. Surely a prime example of a populist product.

Except most of the ‘ordinary Americans’ depicted are obese.

It is not just marketing that is open to criticism. In my discipline – market research – we rarely (for many ‘never’) want to talk to those over the age of 60, who are DE or who fall into lower-income brackets. We are guilty of excluding huge swathes of the population and so our findings and our insights must be less likely to show the full spectrum of attitudes. How exactly did pollsters in the UK miss the Brexit result and the 2015 General Election?

Look, the point of this post is not to criticise marketers and researchers. The point is to suggest that Populism – a movement we are all going to have to get used to whether we like it or not – is a wake up call for all of us who sell goods and services and build brands.

Indeed, it may even present some clear opportunities?

Jumping on the Trump band-wagon, for example, will likely bring short-term gain for any number of brands. Just imagine the possibilities that are out there for the new Populist ways of communicating your Populist messages about all things from toilet cleaner, beer, cars, finance. It is likely the case that the temptation for some will be to mock this ‘new world’ via their communication, but I think that would be an opportunity missed.

Longer term, perhaps we should all be mindful of being more inclusive in the work that we do to make sure we stay relevant and the brands we work on are able to fulfil their potential.

Who knows, perhaps you could argue that the rise of Populism has actually (in part) been a direct result of excluding ordinary folk from our brand strategies and creative executions?

Time to wake up to Populism and (as the Donald would say) grab it by the *****.

Gideon Barker is founder of Profundo Research & Insight, a UK-based insight consultancy.


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